Pressing fantasy questions: 2017 Houston Astros

Mighty mite Jose Altuve leads a young, talent-laden Astros infield. (Getty)
Mighty mite Jose Altuve leads a young, talent-laden Astros infield. (Getty)

Last season, the Astros were about as average a ball club as there was in MLB, finishing 15th in runs scored, and 16th in runs allowed. But when you consider the relative inexperience of many of its key players – Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers, et al – it’s hard not to view the Astros as one of the league’s top up-and-comers.

The team made it an offseason priority to infuse the club with veteran help, adding outfielder Josh Reddick and designated hitter Carlos Beltran in free agency, and trading for backstop Brian McCann. The team is also said to be keen on adding a top-of-the-rotation arm, with Jose Quintana and Chris Archer among the rumored targets. With a solidly stocked farm system, the Astros are in a good position to make a move and become one of the few favorites to contend in the AL – Fangraphs has them projected as one of six teams that will reach 90 wins in ’17.

But despite looking poised for a postseason run this season, the Astros are not without their question marks. Let’s take a look at those that will likely weigh heaviest on fantasy owners this spring:

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Q: Alex Bregman, drink the Kool-Aid or pump the brakes?

The team’s top prospect heading into the ’16 campaign, Bregman received his MLB promotion in late July, and he didn’t exactly hit the ground running (or hitting) – he opened his Astros career by going 2-for-38. But things started to take a turn for the better for Bregman in early August, and he followed up his opening slump by going 51-for-163 (.313) down the stretch. In the process, he showed nice pop, with 24 of those 51 hits going for extra bases (including 8 HRs).

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft out of LSU ascended to Houston in a New York minute (just 146 games played at the minor league level), but he proved over the final two months of ’16 that he already belongs at the highest level of the game. And while he struck out 24% of the time with the Astros, his minor league track record reveals a player that has excellent plate discipline, and combined with his elite bat speed, strikeouts are unlikely to be an on-going issue.

Simply put, Bregman possesses the bat talent and the natural instincts to pick up right where he left off last season. He’s currently going No. 10 among 3B-eligibles in Yahoo ADP, which might be a tad optimistic considering he’s going ahead of two players (Evan Longoria and Anthony Rendon) that finished top 75 overall in the Y! game in ’16. But given Bregman’s pedigree and strong finish to ’16, I think he’s got a fairly safe fantasy floor, one that should be no worse than a .270-.280 batting average and 20-ish home runs to go with solid run production hitting in this potent lineup. And, again, that’s just his floor. So, to answer the question, drink up!

Q: Can 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel rebound from a disappointing ’16 campaign?

Keuchel was one of the biggest fantasy busts of ’16, posting a 4.55 ERA (before being shutdown in late August with a shoulder injury) that was more than two runs higher than the previous season (2.48) and about one and half runs higher than his ’14 mark (2.93). Keuchel’s main issue was a lapse in effectiveness against right-handed hitters, who delivered an OPS vs. Keuchel (.772) that was well above his previous two seasons, when that RHB OPS allowed was well below .700. The good news is that before the shoulder issue, Keuchel was trending back in the right direction, delivering a quality start in 10 of his final 12 starts (3.59 ERA) before being sidelined.

Keuchel has recently started bullpen sessions as he works back from his shoulder injury, and he claims he’s in the best shape of his life. A top 5 fantasy starter in ’15, and top 40 in ’14 (and also for the final two months of last season), Keuchel is going No. 33 among starters in Yahoo ADP. I won’t be willing to go quite that high on him, but I do have him slotted in the backend of my top 40, because we saw him deliver that value over his final 12 starts last season, and the idea of the 29-year-old lefty producing a similar mid-3 ERA, mid-7 K/9 rate feels reasonable.

Q: Whose on first?

Since the departure of Lance Berkman, the Astros have struggled to find a permanent replacement at first base. The hope was that young slugger A.J. Reed would stake his claim to the territory, but Reed flailed in his first opportunity to hold down the Astros’ No. 3 spot, hitting .164 and whiffing 34% of the time in his 45 ABs with Houston in ’16. But after posting a .924 OPS in 70 Triple-A games last season, following a ’15 campaign in which he hit .340 and launched 34 home runs in 135 minor league games, there’s seemingly little left for Reed to prove down on the farm. So he’ll certainly get another shot this season to prove that he’s not destined for the Quad-A label, even if he has to open ’17 back at Triple-A.

Unless Reed tears up spring training and gives the Astros no choice but to bring him to Houston to open the season, Cuban Yulieski Gurriel is expected to hold down the fort at first base. The 32-year-old debuted last season with 36 uneventful games for the Astros (.677 OPS), showing very little of the offensive pop that he was known for in the Cuban Leagues, where he is considered one of the all-time greats. His lackluster showing in Houston last season could very well be a case of small sample size, as he showed no signs of a career slow down in his most recent seasons in the Cuban League and the Japanese League (for 62 games in ’14). Throughout his career, he’s flashed a plus hit tool, able to hit for power and average while also displaying strong plate discipline. That kind of profile makes for a nice draft-day flyer, especially coming off the draft board, in Yahoo ADP, at a discounted No. 255 overall.

Notes: The Astros will have to be creative to get Evan Gattis, who hit 32 home runs in 128 games last season, regular at bats. The best path for playing time will be if 40-year-old Carlos Beltran can log a healthy amount of time in left field, the one spot in the outfield at which he has little experience. Gattis could also see some run in left field, in addition to playing the backup backstop role to Brian McCann. But without full position ownership, Gattis is unlikely to push 500 ABs like he did in ’16 (499 ABs). Reaching 400 ABs is probably the best-case scenario for Gattis this season, assuming an injury doesn’t open up a larger opportunity. But even with something in the neighborhood of 100 less ABs than last season, Gattis still makes a strong bet for 20-plus home runs, making his No. 9 status among catchers in Yahoo ADP a fair value. … With a 3.22 ERA and a 10.2 K/9 rate in 206.2 career innings pitched, 23-year-old starter Lance McCullers has the kind of dreamy upside that you love for a middle-rotation fantasy starter. McCullers dealt with injuries last season (shoulder/elbow) that limited him to just 81 IP. But before he was shut down in early August, he was riding an eight-start streak in which he posted a 2.28 ERA and 62 Ks in 47.1 IP. Expected to be full-go for spring training, McCullers should be firmly on fantasy owners’ radars given his very reasonable Yahoo ADP of No. 43 among starters.

Astros Projected Lineup

George Springer, OF

Alex Bregman, 3B

Jose Altuve, 2B

Carlos Correa, SS

Carlos Beltran, OF

Brian McCann, C

Evan Gattis, DH

Josh Reddick, OF

Yulieski Gurriel, 1B

Astros Projected Rotation

SP Dallas Keuchel

SP Collin McHugh

SP Lance McCullers

SP Mike Fiers

SP Charlie Morton

CL Ken Giles

MR1 – Will Harris